Although governments are meant to be “for the people”, there have been undeniable actions taken by most governments around the world that prove worrisome. The increase in virtually unlimited global mass surveillance projects targeting not just potential enemies but allies and citizens is proof of that. The lack of awareness of such surveillance and censorship projects only aids to reinforce the government’s use of them and control over the rhetoric. However, the fundamental problems are even more complicated when you break down the facts and get into the core of issues, as with the 2014 case of China blocking Instagram.

A look into the scenes behind the blocking of Instagram in China

In late 2014, the Government of China blocked access to Instagram for its Mainland citizens. The move was a drastic one and at the time, a mere band-aid on a bullet wound. Prior to the censorship, pictures and messages of the increasing political unrest within Hong Kong began circulating all around the country. Fearing the influence that such ideas would have on its mainland citizens, the government decided that building an information dam was the best course of action. And that, was the birth of China’s ban on Instagram.

The Beginning of the Umbrella Movement

In 2014, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Government proposed reforms to Hong Kong’s electoral system where Beijing would from then on, pre-screen candidates for the leader of Hong Kong. This is arguably in conflict with the Basic Law of Hong Kong – the region’s handover ‘constitution’ where it was stated that the Special Administrative Region is to enjoy legislative, judiciary and most importantly, administrative autonomy. The proposed electoral system was viewed highly restrictive and too permissive to the intrusion of the Chinese Communist Party into the sovereignty of Hong Kong, which was the trigger to the flames of the Umbrella movement – a city-wide protest where students and the majority of the public joined from the 26th of September to the 15th of December 2014.

Instagram’s role in the protests

At the beginning of the protests, Instagram was still heavily in use. Images of the movement and the poor handling of the peaceful protestors circulated the app and the internet, fanning flames around the world and within the country that painted the Chinese Government in poor light. The move to ban Instagram aimed at managing the impact of the Umbrella Movement within the country by limiting these images’ exposure to Mainland China, under what’s now known as the ‘Great Firewall of China’. Although Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region is not affected under the ban, it’s the Mainlander’s outrage that the government was worried about. Seeing as a single political party rules mainland China, the Umbrella Movement posed the single greatest threat at the time that would have spurred mainlanders into calling for political reforms.

How they blocked Instagram

‘The Great Firewall of China’ is one of the most influential internet security measures employed by the government, and is the reason behind why Instagram banned in China. It comprises both technological and legislative might, which are then used to control the internet within the country. The technological aspect of the Great Firewall of China includes projects such as The Golden Shield, which are employed for mass surveillance and censorship. A firewall works by filtering information through a network. The Great Firewall is on a grand scale using massive amounts of hardware and software and utilizing various tools and techniques in surveillance and censorship.

The surveillance aspect was necessary to block Instagram. By inputting keywords such as “Umbrella Movement”, “Riots”, or “Reforms”, the government could identify the origin and impact of what was shared online. Simply put, the government closely monitored the spread of information. After noticing the impact of Instagram, they then blocked all access to Instagram servers from within China.

For a more straightforward understanding, consider The Great Firewall as an invisible covering China in its entirety. This wall can be restructured to allow in or out specific information while restricting others. At the same time, any data passing through it can be monitored, identified and traced back to the source. Additionally, the wall can be controlled to cover specific regions such as when they controlled the flow of information out of Hong Kong into Mainland China.

A way out

The best way to work around the firewall is through the use of a VPN. A VPN connects you to a different server and encrypts the information passing through your network. Although you would be in China physically, you would be connected through another country. For this to work, you need a quality VPN that can bypass the firewall restrictions while preventing intrusions at the same time. ExpressVPN, the fastest VPN in the world, has an excellent mobile app that could be used across different platforms regardless of OS which would be necessary to unblock Instagram with a VPN.

When traveling to China, more often than not you’ll need a local pre-paid SIM,  data roaming will otherwise cost you an arm and a leg. While a VPN can help you bypass content restrictions, you will first need access to your phone. Many users encounter the problem of a locked phone when they try to put in a SIM card from another telecommunication service provider. Arguably, it’s only fair that this restriction is place to ensure loyalty to your contracted provider, having your phone locked just because you require an overseas SIM in a foreign country can be a very frustrating situation. That’s why resourceful travellers turn to niche services that unlocks their phone on the road to enjoy the freedom to change SIMs and stay connected at reasonable rates.

The Bottomline

While the moves taken by the Chinese Government are highly questionable, it will be years yet before any positive change takes place. To avoid the fear of always being under a watchful eye, it is necessary that Chinese citizens understand how the firewall works and any possible workarounds. Keep in mind that simple measures such as proxies don’t work, especially since this is a measure the government is aware of and had accounted for. Your best bet, therefore, is a quality and trusted VPN, which has been proven to work.